Herbal medicine in a 21st century African village.
Abstract: This article is based on five months of research in a rural village in Nigeria. During this research numerous interviews of local traditional medicine practitioners and others recognised by their community as having valuable phytomedicinal knowledge were conducted. The central focus of these interviews was to identify how people incorporate medicinal plants into their lives and what changes their phytomedical knowledge is undergoing. This article identifies three main points: (1) that there is an abundance of traditional phytomedical knowledge preserved by oral traditions in this village, (2) this knowledge is endangered and action needs to be taken to help preserve it, and (3) the loss of traditions relating to the sustainable use of medicinal herbs has resulted in the medicinal species themselves becoming threatened. Comparisons between the situation for modern Australasian herbalists and village healers in the study community are made and this article concludes with recommendations on how to mitigate the loss of both phytomedicinal knowledge and species globally.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Medicine, Botanic (Forecasts and trends)
Medicine, Botanic (Social aspects)
Medicine, Herbal (Forecasts and trends)
Medicine, Herbal (Social aspects)
Rural health (Forecasts and trends)
Rural health (Social aspects)
Author: Korndoerfer, Tammy
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism Publisher: National Herbalists Association of Australia Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Herbalists Association of Australia ISSN: 1033-8330
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 23 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks; 290 Public affairs Computer Subject: Market trend/market analysis
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Australia; Nigeria Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia; 6NIGR Nigeria
Accession Number: 254971766
Full Text: Introduction

I would like to begin by calling the attention of herbalists in Australia to an international environmental issue that many practitioners may not be aware of: endangered medical knowledge and endangered medical species. Environmentalism is a big issue and protecting the environment is something that, in principle, most people agree with. There are however many more issues than recycling and riding a bicycle that need to be addressed to save our planet. These issues are so numerous that we cannot be expected to live our lives and be champions of every environmental cause, but as herbalists we have a certain responsibility to understand environmental issues that relate to our profession.

Firstly there lies the issue of managing our own herbal pharmacopeia sustainably (for example supporting regulations that restrict the use of unsustainably harvested herbs such as Hydrastis canadensis, golden seal) (Davis 2000, Cech 2002). Through requirements for professional registration and the standardisation of the education of herbalists in Australia, most practitioners are aware that without careful regulation of the use of endangered species, many of the herbs we enjoy the use of today will not be available far into the future (Main 2008, Li-hong 2010). Aside from goldenseal, other common herbs in the Australasian herbalist's pharmacopeia which are currently listed as 'at risk' by the UPS (United Plant Savers, an American organisation which has compiled extensive data on the sustainable use of medicinal plants) including black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Cimicifuga racemosa), eyebright (Euphrasia spp), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), and even the immensely popular echinacea (Ecinacea purpurea and spp) (UPS 2008).

Beyond conserving the herbs themselves, herbalists also have an obligation to society to preserve and develop traditional herbal knowledge. On many fronts we as a profession can be congratulated for having done a stellar job at this as the rise of modern herbalism has seen scientific confirmation and clarification of many traditional remedies. As a consequence phytomedicine in Australia (and throughout the developed world) has gained a lot of credibility and recognition over recent decades (Bensoussan 2004). One of the most important battles the Australian natural medicine community is now fighting is to get public health insurance rebates for alternative medicine treatments, thereby making them affordable for poorer members of society rather than a privilege of the rich (MacLennan 1996).

Elsewhere in the world traditional medicines are the domain of the underprivileged. Because of a lack of recognition, herbal medicine knowledge is not valued by younger generations in these areas and consequently a wealth of herbal knowledge is being lost (KapoorVijay 2000). In other cases a partial transfer of herbal knowledge is made, but this can actually accelerate the loss of herbal remedies through contributing to the local (or global) extinction of medicinal species. An example of this is when the knowledge that a plant is useful is retained, but not the knowledge of how to harvest it efficiently or sustainably.

This article illustrates some of the problems that have arisen from this situation in an African village community. Similarities between the issues that herbalists in the study community face and the issues faced by modern Australasian herbalists are apparent and thus the importance of issues that Australasian herbalists face can be seen as part of a larger, global context.

The community in focus in this study is Yelwa village, a rural village on the highlands of Nigeria, close to the Cameroon border. It has undergone many significant changes over the last three decades. The inhabitants of this village are from a diverse variety of local tribes including Fulani, Mambilla, Kaka, Tigung, Tiv, Ndoro, Panso and Kambu. This village is relatively small consisting of just over 300 families. In 1971 the Ngel Nyaki forest (where the founders of this community were living) became a designated forest reserve and the residents were relocated to what has now become Yelwa (which simply means 'new' in one of the local languages). Whilst located within the forest this community practiced a system of shifting cultivation, also known as 'slash and burn agriculture', where forest is cleared, the land farmed for several consecutive years until the soil nutrient levels are depleted and then the farm is abandoned to regenerate over time and a new area cleared for agriculture. Figure 1 shows the site of one of these farms within the forest which continued to be cultivated illegally up until 1990.


Due to an increasing population as well as the relocation of the village, the farming methods of this community now rely on the application of synthetic fertilizers on permanently allocated fields, although nearly all the village residents remain subsistence farmers. This study investigates the changes in the traditional phytomedicinal knowledge of this community as a result of these changes and the other effects of increasing modernisation and western influence in the region. By understanding the situation in this village and identifying the similarities and differences between the challenges faced by Australasian herbalists and the herbalists from Yelwa village, the global significance of issues faced by Australasian herbalists can be better conceptualised.


This article is based on five months of field research. For these five months I lived as part of the Yelwa village community. During this time I interviewed 37 members of the community who were reputed to be knowledgeable in medical herbalism. Following these interviews (which were conducted either individually or in small groups of uniform gender and ethnicity) the informant would spend the rest of the day showing me all the medicinal plants that they could find in the village and surrounds. Botanical specimens of these plants were collected and where possible these plants were identified by botanical name, although many of the plants in the region are as yet unidentified (Chapman 2001). All specimens were photographed.

Results and discussion

In this study 135 species of plants growing wild had recognised uses and 77% of these uses were of a medicinal nature for either people (73%) or animals (4%) (see Figure 2). The uses to which these plants were applied varied between gender and tribe, and in some cases these uses were highly mystical. For example a common strategy employed to discourage the theft of produce from an unattended farm was to make coils of Pteridium aquilinum (common bracken) fronds and arranging several of them around the field. This is believed to cause sickness in any who steal produce. I have classified all such purposes under the heading 'Cultural'. This category also includes ritual purposes such as use in wedding ceremonies or ceremonies to mark the birth of infants. In other instances this mysticism was something more readily accepted by modern western herbalists. For example Emilia coccinea (tassel flower) was indicated as an antimalarial but only for use in men. While most western herbalists would be sceptical of this duality, many others (and probably quite a few who would be sceptical of such a direct claim as 'only for men') are subscribers to the belief that certain herbs have a greater affinity for treating conditions common to everyone in certain archetypes than others. Although very little is published in modern phytopharmacological reviews to this effect, western herbal traditions include many such recognised affinities. For example in A modern Herbal Mrs Grieve states of German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, M, recutita) that it 'may be given freely to children, for whose ailments it is an excellent remedy' while she recommends that English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, Anthemis nobilis) is 'especially for aged persons' and 'for hysterical and nervous affection in women' (Grieve 1931). Thus I have recorded purposes such as this as medicinal, despite the cultural application of the medicinal plant.

In many other instances a clear underlying property became apparent, despite differences in the prescribed uses of a plant. I again refer to the example of the species Emilia coccinea. This species was reported by members of eight separate tribe and gender subgroups to have a different use, however all uses could be related back to anti-inflammatory properties. A full description of its uses as described by each gender and ethnic group is presented below in Table 1.

The vast majority of people reported relying on wildcrafting for their herbal medicine supplies, however several problems with this situation came to light in the course of my research. One of these problems, the loss of herbal knowledge, has two faces. The first and most obvious of these faces is the direct loss of valuable knowledge to a community. For these people herbal knowledge and skill as a healer have previously been regarded as a form of wealth. Thus families have often held their herbal knowledge as a closely guarded secret passed on only to chosen children or grandchildren, much like any other part of an inheritance. Now however the chain of knowledge is breaking. As one grandmother said, she knew many more species of medicinal plants (trees in particular) than she was able to show me as she was no longer capable of making the long, steep walk up the mountain to the forest where they grew. Just as she was unable to show me these species, she was also unable to pass this knowledge on to her grandchildren, although two of them expressed a strong interest in phytomedicine and were learning what they could from her. Hence this part of her unique hereditary herbal knowledge ends with her and will not be passed on to her descendants. Another man, although still strong and fit, had no descendents with any interest in the knowledge, despite having eleven children.

The second part of the problem: the partial loss of herbal knowledge, is less foreseeable, however certainly not less tragic. What is meant by 'partial loss of herbal' knowledge is not the loss of knowledge of some species, but of knowledge that relates to the collection, processing or uses of a plant. Of particular long term concern is knowledge which relates to the sustainable harvesting of a plant, while knowledge of the value of the plant remains.

The consequences of this became clear through the afternoons I spent with healers harvesting medicinal plants from the village surrounds. In my expeditions with informants I was witness to a variety of harvesting methods; some clearly well thought out, some clearly not. For example with one informant I walked for several hours to find a single tree. On reaching it my informant explained to me the importance and scarcity of this tree, then proceeded to hack into it with a mattock, ripping off large portions of the sap wood which was then discarded, retaining only the inner bark. In contrast I visited a different tree with another informant who used a sharp machete to carefully pare away a small portion of bark, explaining to me that you should not take more than a hand sized piece, as taking too much makes the tree dry out and struggle to recover. This tree bore scars and evidence of past broken branches, which this informant told me was caused by those who 'had not been taught properly' and had hence harvested too aggressively (Figure 3). Thus we see that the incomplete transfer of herbal knowledge can result in a greater problem than the complete loss of the tradition; potentially resulting not only in the loss of the medicine to the community, but also the loss of the species.

Similarly in the western world numerous herbal medicine and folk remedy books are written for the general public. Many of these books provide extensive descriptions of how to identify a plant in the wild and even how to process the plant, yet very few provide any information on environmental issues relating to the species listed. This then encourages interested and well meaning readers to seek out wild populations of these plants and harvest them. Because Australian herbalists are much more likely to use standardised extracts than wildcrafting their own plants, we may not be aware of the consequences of this omission in our own regions.

It is however a relevant issue in Australia. The Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management lists the collection of wild plants for 'bush tucker' and other uses as a factor contributing to the decline of endangered native plants (Queensland Government 2007).



This study has demonstrated that there is a wealth of phytomedicinal knowledge continuing to be passed on through oral traditions alone in rural regions of the developing world, much as Western phytomedical knowledge was before it was set in type by the forbearers of the modern naturopathic tradition such as Hildegard of Bingen, Nicholas Culpeper and more recently Mrs. Maud Grieve. In indigenous societies this knowledge, while still extensive, is rapidly being lost. This is firstly as a result of the diminishing relative importance of herbalists in these communities (due to the introduction of pharmaceuticals such as paracetamol and antibiotics); and secondly because access to the medicinal plants themselves is often lost (as a result of local and global extinctions, the resettlement of villages and land use changes). Both of these factors have afflicted the Western herbal medicine tradition in the past and we will never know how much invaluable knowledge has been lost. While the loss of traditional remedies from Africa may not have immediate consequences for us, the potential long term losses to our industry should motivate us to take the initiative in this matter.

Australasia itself is also not without traditional remedies. While most Australian practitioners rely on herbs predominantly of European origin (although Chinese, Indian and other North Asian remedies are also commonly used), the Australasian region has a vast diversity of indigenous cultures and each of these has a tradition of using medicinal plants, virtually none of which (with the exception of kava kava, Piper methysticum) are used in any notable quantities by Australian herbalists.

Herbalists in rural communities in developing countries do not have the resources that we do to enact global changes. These resources include everything from the very basics (e.g. literacy) to the very sophisticated (e.g. mass spectrometers). Thus further initiatives originating from herbalists in developed regions are necessary to preserve the knowledge that traditional societies have accumulated, including indigenous Australian herbal medicine traditions.

However while documentation of the accumulated knowledge of traditional healers in developing regions is necessary to preserve the content of oral traditions which are disappearing in a modern world, great care should be taken that this does not turn into an exploitative process (where the intellectual treasures of indigenous people are purloined) (Schuler 2004) but rather as co-operative research projects that respect and reward the skills of the indigenous healers.

This respect and recognition may in turn assist by empowering these healers to keep their traditional knowledge alive and intact in their own communities, just as gaining recognition for our industry has facilitated improvements in the standard of education, documentation and resources available to herbalists in the developed world.

In the village where this case study was conducted, as a result of the interest in traditional medical knowledge by outside researchers, two important changes were observable. Firstly more of the village youth began expressing an interest in learning the herbal skills of their parents and grandparents, and secondly a village herbal medicine committee has formed. With the establishment of this committee the village healers now have the potential to develop policies to regulate unsustainable harvesting practices.

In Australia and the Pacific Region the influence of development and modernisation on traditional healing techniques has already had a substantial effect. However many communities still exist where traditional medicinal knowledge has been preserved (Maher 1999).

As Australian herbalists we have a vested interest in the preservation of this knowledge.


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Tammy Korndoerfer

email: timtamtaz@gmail.com
Table 1: Uses of the herb Emilia coccinea by
tribe and gender

    Group                         Uses

Mambilla women   General tonic

Mambilla men     Topically as an eyewash

Kaka women       Topically for earache

Kaka men         1. Topically for earache
                 2. Internally to treat indigestion

Tigon women      Anti-inflammatory (it is not clear whether it is
                 ingested or applied topically for this purpose)

Tigon men        To treat sick animals (when the sickness is

Fulani women     Anti-malarial (in men only)

Fulani men       As a mouthwash (in conjunction with another
                 herb) to treat toothache

Figure 2: The uses of wildcrafted plants

Medicine (humans)    73%
Medicine (animals)    4%
Food                 11%
Cultural             10%
Materials             2%

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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